Theatre: Gloom with a view

Theatre: Amy's View, Aldwych Theatre, London
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He's a peculiar case is David Hare. Always, even in his best work, there are patches where you feel you're having your ear bent by someone still compelled to score points in the manner of some cocky little snit of a sixth former and a voice inside you wants to scream, more at the dramatist than at the character speaking, "Oh, for God's sake grow up!" And then there are sequences that you'd give almost anything to be able to write yourself, like the masterly and beautiful last scene in Amy's View, now transferred to the West End in Richard Eyre's lucid, deeply felt production.

Attendance at this play is compulsory because, in it, Judi Dench excels herself - which must take some doing. She plays Esme, an actress who in the course of the piece loses everything but her talent which might, by a painful paradox, have been deepened by the other deprivations. She loses her daughter (Samantha Bond) to a young man called Daniel whom she, Esme, despises.

Well, Daniel starts off as a critic, which is appalling enough, then, in changing-state-of-England jumps from 1979 to 1995, he becomes the shit- in-shades representative of everything that's bad about art-hating media arts people and progresses, via adultery, to the dubious status of a director of trendily violent movies. Daniel is played by Eoin McCarthy who is good looking but not unduly burdened with the kind of charisma that would make Amy's dogged, if mother-challenging, loyalty to him explicable. Should any of my own daughters ever bring home such a man, I would instantly offer to pay for electric shock aversion therapy.

Losing all her money in the Lloyds Insurance disaster, and Amy, who dies young, Dench's Esme thrillingly loses all the actressy girlishness, the winning, flouncy, self-mocking manner that this woman can put up as a barrier between her and hard reality. Like the play of light on shot silk, playfulness and pain elusively alternate in her performance throughout: those aggressively keen appraising looks that melt into puzzled anguish, the sudden glimpses you get through the reppy persiflage of a desolate hinterland. But there's a pared-to-the-bone quality about her performance in the final dressing room scene that is a peak of her art in the way it transmits the kind of hard won wintery wisdom that you'd still trade in to have your loved ones back.

It's also a peak of Hare's art: one detail will have to suffice to explain why. She's visited by Daniel and it's left ambiguous the extent to which Esme will continue to resist her former son-in-law's attempts to mend the fences between them as a tribute to the dead daughter's belief in unconditional love. What I hadn't appreciated before is the brilliance of the moment when she suddenly bestows on her former son-in-law an intimate recollection of her own prematurely deceased husband. You wouldn't tell that to someone you'd completely written off. Or would you, if you were now beyond caring? Dench's performance keeps you guessing, though not about its magnificence.

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